Obama's Right: Congress Doesn't Work

[ Posted Thursday, June 30th, 2011 – 16:56 UTC ]

President Obama, in his press conference yesterday, took Congress to task over the fact that it doesn't work. In fact, he did so in both senses of the phrase "doesn't work." Obama lit into Congress for not doing much in the best of times, and also pointed out the glaring fact that Congress sure does take a lot of vacation time, don't they?

Here is the relevant excerpt from yesterday's presser (the president was answering a question about the debt limit negotiations):

PRESIDENT OBAMA: ...And, you know, Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time. Malia is 13, Sasha is 10.

CROWD COMMENT: Impressive.

OBAMA: It is impressive. They don't wait until the night before. They're not pulling all-nighters. (Laughter.) They're 13 and 10. Congress can do the same thing. If you know you've got to do something, just do it.

And I've got to say, I'm very amused when I start hearing comments about, well, the President needs to show more leadership on this. Let me tell you something. Right after we finished dealing with the government shutdown, averting a government shutdown, I called the leaders here together. I said we've got to get done -- get this done. I put Vice President Biden in charge of a process -- that, by the way, has made real progress -- but these guys have met, worked through all of these issues. I met with every single caucus for an hour to an hour and a half each -- Republican senators, Democratic senators; Republican House, Democratic House. I've met with the leaders multiple times. At a certain point, they need to do their job.

And so, this thing, which is just not on the level, where we have meetings and discussions, and we're working through process, and when they decide they're not happy with the fact that at some point you've got to make a choice, they just all step back and say, well, you know, the President needs to get this done -- they need to do their job.

Now is the time to go ahead and make the tough choices. That's why they're called leaders. And I've already shown that I'm willing to make some decisions that are very tough and will give my base of voters further reason to give me a hard time. But it's got to be done.

And so there's no point in procrastinating. There's no point in putting it off. We've got to get this done. And if by the end of this week, we have not seen substantial progress, then I think members of Congress need to understand we are going to start having to cancel things and stay here until we get it done.

They're in one week, they're out one week. And then they're saying, Obama has got to step in. You need to be here. I've been here. I've been doing Afghanistan and bin Laden and the Greek crisis. You stay here. Let's get it done.

All right. I think you know my feelings about that. (Laughter.)

Setting aside the issue of Congress actually getting something done (and setting aside the rest of the press conference, which I will be writing about tomorrow), President Obama's got a damn good point: Congress is just not showing up to work very often.

I first wrote about this (during the current Congress) at the end of the first calendar quarter of this year, when Bob Schieffer pointed it out on his Face The Nation show one Sunday morning. Since then, Congress hasn't gotten much better about putting in a solid workweek, to put it mildly.

Since the beginning of this year, there have been 129 calendar days through today (the end of June -- the halfway point for the year). During this period, there were four federal holidays. That leaves 125 non-holiday weekdays in which Congress could have shown up and done some business.

Before we get to the numbers, let's put it into the perspective of most working Americans, shall we? If you had a really bad job, you would have had to work each and every one of those 129 days. If you had a slightly-better job, you would have had to work for 125 days. If you had what used to be the standard package of benefits from your employer (a decent job, in other words), then you would have gotten the four paid holidays, been sick for two days (also paid), and taken a week-long paid vacation. In other words, you would have worked 118 days. Let's just keep that in mind while we examine Congress' record.

So far this year, the House has been in session for 79 days. The Senate has only managed to put in 76 days doing the job we have hired them to do. The House has taken a whopping 46 non-holiday weekdays off so far this year, in other words. That is over nine weeks of not showing up to work, in a six-month period of roughly 26 weeks. The Senate is even worse, as they took off 49 non-holiday weekdays -- almost ten full weeks.

This, to be quite blunt, is pathetic. Another word which springs to mind is "unacceptable."

Let's add some historical data for context. Here is the record for the past four years, of days actually worked through the end of June (all data from the Library of Congress):

2011 House -- 79 days
2011 Senate -- 76 days

2010 House -- 84 days
2010 Senate -- 89 days

2009 House -- 85 days
2009 Senate -- 97 days

2008 House -- 80 days
2008 Senate -- 102 days

2007 House -- 92 days
2007 Senate -- 101 days

This takes us back a full presidential election cycle. Looking even further back, we'll take the equivalent year from the presidential terms of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton:

2003 House -- 79 days
2003 Senate -- 91 days

1995 House -- 90 days
1995 Senate -- 108 days

A few footnotes are necessary, before we begin to draw conclusions. In 2009, there was an additional federal holiday (Inauguration Day), and due to the vagaries of the calendar there was an extra workday in the years 2008, 2007, and 1995. This means the years 1995, 2007, and 2008 had a total of 126 non-holiday weekdays; the years 2003, 2010, and 2011 had 125 non-holiday weekdays; and 2009 had only 124.

Nonetheless, in only one example -- the 1995 Senate -- do we find anything even in the same ballpark as the 118 days an average worker (with what used to be standard benefits) would be working. And even in that "best example" the Senate still took two weeks more vacation than your average working stiff -- meaning they were on track to take six paid vacation weeks that year. And that's the best case, mind you.

The House is even lazier. Their best year was in 2007, when they worked 92 days -- in other words, over five weeks more paid vacation time than a regular worker. The 2007 House -- remember, this is their best case -- was on track to take off a whopping total of twelve weeks vacation that year.

But what Obama was talking about yesterday was this Congress' record, not the "best case." Not even counting holidays, so far this year the House has taken off a total of 46 days. The Senate's number is even more dismal, as they've taken off 49 days. What this means is that the House is on track to take over eighteen weeks of vacation time this year, and the Senate is shooting for almost twenty weeks off this year -- the equivalent of working only three days a week, all year long.

As the historical records show, this isn't even a partisan problem -- it is an institutional one. The House schedule is set by Republicans, and the Senate's by Democrats. Neither party seems to want to work very much. Harry Reid just announced that the Senate will be (gasp!) foregoing yet another of their weeklong vacations next week, and will actually return to Washington to do some work. Well, it's certainly a baby step in the right direction, I guess.

The most pathetic thing about adding these numbers up is the fact that the first half of the year is Congress' productive half of the year. When you look at the remainder of the congressional calendar, whole gaping months are regularly taken off for vacationing. August, for instance. If it's an election year, Congress regularly takes off most of October to campaign. And every year, Congress takes off oodles of time between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. Meaning July, September, and October (in non-election years) are really about the only months even approaching a full work schedule for Congress. Which means that no matter how obscene the vacation numbers already are at this point in the year, by year's end they will likely be even worse.

Why do the American people put up with this? Mostly because they don't think about it very much. Which, in turn, is mostly due to the media not pointing it out very often. When it does get pointed out -- by the president, no less -- sometimes Congress cleans its act up a bit. Hence Reid's announcement, on the heels of Obama's press conference.

What happened to all of that Tea Party enthusiasm over in the Republican House? For all their supposed energy, they've worked a total of 79 out of 125 non-holiday weekdays. What about the Democratic Senate holding the line against Republican extremism? They've worked only 76 days so far this year. Sooner or later one of these grassroots populist movements is going to notice this, and make it a big, honking issue -- complete with pledges to sign and the whole nine yards. That's my hope, anyway.

I'll even offer up a prediction, after checking out the Senate's upcoming calendar for the remainder of this year (note: the House used to also publicly post their calendar for the rest of the year, but -- out of embarrassment, one assumes -- they don't seem to do so any more). The big fight over raising the debt ceiling will not end on the second of August -- the deadline drawn in the sand by the Obama administration. Instead, a debt ceiling bill will pass on the eighth of August. I know this, because if the debate ran on any longer than that, then it would start cutting into the over four weeks of August vacation time the Senate is awarding itself. The only way anything gets done in Congress, these days, is when their precious vacation time is in danger. So look for a bill to be put on Obama's desk late night on the eighth -- that's my prediction.


-- Chris Weigant

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


5 Comments on “Obama's Right: Congress Doesn't Work”

  1. [1] 
    Osborne Ink wrote:

    Oh, Chris...I have just returned from a Mo Brooks town hall where tea party wackos told him to focus on getting rid of Obama and stop negotiating on the debt ceiling. None of them could give a specific thing they wanted to see cut except foreign aid. Veterans offered their own benefits. Seniors offered their own Social Security for cutting. And I knew enough about enough of the people in the room to identify the John Birchers and Alex Jones fans before they even spoke. Birthers and goldbugs and black helicopters. It was insane.

    After reading your post, Chris, I want you to understand that Mo Brooks was in Killen, Alabama instead of getting the job done that they elected him to do because eastern Lauderdale County turned out for him in a big way, and those are the people telling him now that it's time to get rid of Obama. Because of a birth certificate.

  2. [2] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    OsborneInk -

    I dunno, if this was, for instance, a big bugaboo with the Tea Party, then I have to think that by now, the House would have worked a few more days this year. I remember Nancy Pelosi trying to make this a big deal after 2006, but it soon slid back to the lazy, noon-Tuesday-to-noon-Thursday workweek.

    This is a populist issue just waiting for someone to demagogue successfully, that's my take on it.


  3. [3] 
    dsws wrote:

    The work of Congress does not take place primarily in parliamentary procedure on the floors of the respective chambers. It takes place in meetings with constituents and in office sessions where staffers draft, check, and revise legislation.

    (Of course, any constituent who actually meets with a representative (as distinguished from attending a "town hall" media event) is ipso facto a lobbyist, and therefore universally regarded as the scum of the earth.)

    It's scandalous that the House has wasted a whole 79 days this year on sterile parliamentary maneuvering.

  4. [4] 
    akadjian wrote:

    If this is right, Congress has passed just 18 bill this year, 15 of which named buildings.

    Worthless ...

  5. [5] 
    dsws wrote:

    Looks like 23 laws, five of which just name buildings: and click "112-1 - 112-23" under "Select a Range of Public Laws".

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